“GREYBEARD”, Gow & Gow’s Quarterly Gazette, (Barellan, NSW), No. 1, January 1924
CLINT MALVERN couldn’t help sighing when he walked into Aussie Eats. He took off his hat and let out the biggest sigh he could muster, then he sighed some more. It was no use, though. The place was empty. The Galaga machine offered an occasional melancholy beep to the two stools squatting like reversible salt and pepper shakers in the corner. The insect-like spaceships hovered over the glass window of the bainmarie, casting an alien shadow on the trays of lettuce, tomato and cucumber. As the demonstration game came to its predictable conclusion, Clint looked on glumly. The tractor beam carried the fighter off into outer space, from whence it would not return, unless he (or someone else) put twenty cents in the slot. The countdown wound its way down to zero. Game over.
The smell of oil emanating from the deep fryer, as if in response to the absence of truckies and kids, occupied literally every cubic inch of air. The rotating fan suspended from the ceiling did its best to keep the odour moving but it had been too hot that Friday afternoon to make much difference. Everywhere, chickens stood still in their coops; fleas, in search of cooler climates, emigrated from dog pelts; and altar boys refused to attend Mass, judging (wisely) that they would surely boil to death in their pre-Vatican II outfits.
Clint looked away from the game and saw the oil-spattered Chiko Roll advertisement on the counter; beneath it, on a metal tray, a stack of potato scallops, pre-cooked.
— Hi Clint, called the young girl, Sam, from the kitchen. I’ll be with you in a minute.
Clint peered through the bainmarie glass to the spot where Sam shovelled flour into a huge mixer. He admired its steel stirrers, its important-looking controls — speed adjusters, pulse and the like. Suddenly the coolroom door opened. Out strode Old Mrs Liebermann, Sam’s aunt, dragging a giant sack of potatoes. Clint waved to her.
— Hey Auntie Coral, they for me?
— Ha ha, good one, boy. Come through and make yourself useful. I’ve got something for you.
She stood up, groaned and exited through the side door, presumably heading for the back office, from which her father, Old Laurie, seldom ventured nowadays. Clint looked at his watch, shrugged and squeezed past the counter, stepping carefully across the greasy floor of the kitchen. It was a transgression not of personal, familial or proprietorial territory – rather, a familiar ritual, performed at various times by virtually every man, woman and child in Dulton.
Clint picked up a tea-towel and began drying the bainmarie trays with a nonchalant air. Sam grinned.
— You’re a natural.
— Yeah, right.
— Where’s your dad?
— Next door getting drunk, last I heard.
The old bastard’s pissing the family fortune up against that crawling vine out in the beer garden at the Commercial, thought Clint. Family fortune, indeed. The Commercial Hotel! Full of deadheads and alcoholics, not to mention the crazy bastard who couldn’t say anything except “Go the Bombers! Windy Hill! Go the Bombers!” over and over again. He used to barrack all the way up and down Farrar Street, a white line of froth at his mouth.
— So, Grog Malvern, Jnr. got sent to buy chips for his daddy, did he?
Sam pouted as she spoke, teasing Clint while she poured water into the mixer. She grinned again and he couldn’t help smiling back.
— Got it in one. Catch.
He threw the tea towel at her head and bolted for the still-open coolroom door. Sam evaded the flying cloth easily, watching it slap into the wall next to her. Putting on a kung fu fighter’s voice, she peeled the towel off the wall and wound it up, intending to use it as a whip. Slowly, with soft meow sounds, she crept towards the coolroom doorway, where stood Clint, shivering and laughing.
— Wanna fight … he challenged.
— Fight me … Sam purred, grabbing a handful of his shirt.
All of a sudden Clint’s face was tense and hot. Little did he know but Sam was just about to try and kiss him full on the lips.
— Samantha! Leave the poor boy alone! shouted Aunty Coral, reentering with a tray of something.
— Auntie, Sam moaned, exasperated.
— I’ve got no time for your mischief today, young lady. Now go out and check on your grandfather.
— Sieg Heil! Sam shouted, petulantly.
— See you at the basketball, Clint?
— Ah, maybe.
What just happened, Clint wondered, his mind racing. I have absolutely no recollection of what just happened.
— Gee, don’t get over-enthusiastic or anything.
— Oh yeah, and it’s so exciting to watch a bunch of amateur girls dropping balls. Yeah, can’t wait.
Why did I say that?
— Well, it’s better than playing with model aeroplanes!
— Shut up, the two of you! yelled Mrs Liebermann.
The walls reverberated with the echo of her booming voice.
— Now, she continued, passing Clint the tray, give this to your father and tell him it’s a gift from Laurie and myself. And this, she said, drawing a string of rosary beads from her apron, is for your mother.
Old Mrs Liebermann slipped the beads smoothly into the pocket of Clint’s ice-blue Midford school shirt with a meaningful look. Then she plomped herself back on her stool and resumed the potato peeling.
— Well then, see ya, Clint said, though he didn’t know exactly who he was addressing, not to mention why.